Your Next Step – Making Yeast Starters

The first thing you need to do to start brewing (after reading and deciding and ordering) is to make yeast starters.

Now, there are some brewers who don’t make yeast starters and that is perfectly fine. For us, however, we always make a starter. ((There have been one or two instances where we pitched the yeast directly, but that was because of a snafu on our part, not a deliberate choice.)) We figure that it’s better to pitch yeast that’s awake and ready to gobble sugars than yeast that’s just waking up and potentially not that “hungry” yet.

Also, these instructions assume that you use the SmackPacks of Wyeast liquid yeast like we do. It’s what we prefer and it’s the process I’m going to describe. If you want to use dried yeast, that’s fine but you’ll have to Google or read how to modify our steps for that.

Here’s the amounts of water and DME you’ll need for your starters:
Standard 1L starter: 650mL of H20 + ½ cup DME
High Gravity 1L starter: 650mL of H20 + ¾ cup DME

Standard 2L starter: 1300mL of H20 + 1 cup DME
High Gravity 2L starter: 1300mL of H20 + 1 ½ cup DME

*You can use either the tables in the back of Jamil’s book Brewing Classic Styles or an software program like Mr. Malty to figure out the size of yeast starter you need. There is also a semi-complicated formula that you can do yourself, but I don’t remember it off the top of my head. *

Other equipment you’ll need:
-Appropriately sized Erlenmeyer flasks (Make sure they are true borosilicate, not lime glass as previously stated in the “Equipment” post)
-Appropriately sized sponge stopper
-Yeast Nutrient
-Yeast (obviously)
-Star San
-Aluminum Foil (one 4” square piece per starter)

Here are the steps for making your starter:
1) At least 3 hours before you’re going to make the starters, smack your SmackPack of yeast. Over the course of a few hours, the yeast pack will swell up like a big pillow; this is how you know you have viable, live yeast. Certain yeasts (like Wyeast 1056 American Ale) swell really, really quickly. Other yeasts take a bit longer to puff up. If there is no swelling, do not make a starter with this yeast! Putting dead yeast in a flask of delicious wort will not bring your yeast back to life and render them capable of making beer.
2) Once your yeast is nice and puffy, mix up a batch of Star San. We make 2 gallons in a dish tub and it’s the perfect amount to get us through making starters one night and brewing the next day. Sanitize your flasks, sponges, funnel, and foil.

3) Pour the recommended amount of water into a pot and bring to a boil. Once it starts to boil, add the DME, stirring well to break up any clumps.

4) Now this is the tricky part, so pay attention. Bring the pot back to a boil. (Sounds easy, right?) But the pot will boil over in a second if you are not on that like white on rice. Do NOT walk away from the pot, at least until you have the re-boil well established and the chance of a stinky, gunky, impossible-to-clean mess has diminished. ((And trust me – it is impossible to get burnt-on wort off your stovetop. The best tool for removal is baking soda paste and even then you’ll only get some of it off. Better to watch the pot like a hawk and avoid it entirely.)) Once you have the boil going again, start your timer for 15 minutes.

When the boil looks like this, it’s probably safe to step away from the stove for a minute or two.

5) When you have 10 minutes left on the timer, add 1/8 tsp of yeast nutrient to the pot.

6) When there’s about 5 minutes left on the timer, fill your sink with ice and cold water. Also, take the flasks, funnel, and foil out of the Star San and allow to dry.

7) Once the timer dings, carefully pour the hot wort into the flask. Use the funnel. That’s why you have it. Cover the top of the flask with aluminum foil to create a tight seal, and place the flask in the ice bath. You may want to use a pot holder or oven mitt as the flask itself can get kind of warm.

8) Now you wait for your wort to cool to pitching temperature. You can just let the flask sit in the ice bath, but it takes a heck of a lot longer that way. The DreadBrewer and I are practically compulsive about swirling it about and seeing how quickly we can cool it down. This will usually take at least 8-10 minutes for a 1L flask and 13-15 minutes for a 2L flask.
9) When the flask is no longer warm to the touch (you’re aiming for about 78 degrees here), you can pitch the yeast. Sanitize the outside of the SmackPack in Star San for a minute, give it one last good shake, snip the tip off, and pour it in. Then put your squeezed-out sponge stopper in and swirl to mix the yeast and wort.

10) Put your flask in a dark spot that’s around 70 degrees – we use the upstairs bathroom – and leave it alone until brew day. We have learned the hard way that, as tempting as it is to go swirl your starter and watch the vigorous bubbling action, it is not a good idea. There will be a yeast explosion if you do that.

So there you have it – how to make a yeast starter to ensure a good fermentation for your beer.

Also, let me define two yeasty terms for you so that you look like you know what you’re talking about next time you try to impress a beer geek.
Attenuation is the percentage of sugars that your yeast consumes as it turns it into beer. So, a 65% attenuation rate means that 65% of the available sugars have been consumed and turned into alcohol, CO2, and flavor compounds.
Flocculation is the “clumpability” of the yeast so that it sticks together and falls out of solution when it is done fermenting.

Keep an eye out for the Steps to Becoming a HomeBrewer: Brewing your first batch post in the next few days!

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